20 Jun 2017

Review: Lorde's Melodrama breaks the rules to 'make 'em all dance'

From The Sampler, 12:00 pm on 20 June 2017

For anyone who still imagines Lorde to be the creation of shadowy music industry manipulators rather than the remarkable invention of the teenage Ella Yelich-O’Connor, Melodrama should help clear things up.

In the four years since Pure Heroine a lot has changed. She has found a new producer, gained a huge international profile and received the blessings of the late David Bowie.

Yet the musical vision remains recognisably the same, and identifiably her own.

Lorde

It’s a more sophisticated album, though initially the 20-year-old Lorde of Melodrama seems to present a more predictable character than the teenage outsider of her debut.

Where songs like ‘Royals’ and ‘Team’ derided the aspirations of the Cristal and Grey Goose set, these new songs loosely follow the singer through a night-in-the-life, much of which seems to be spent spilling out of taxis, hitting parties and leaving a trail of empty champagne glasses.

The high times are contrasted with moments of loneliness, self-questioning and doubt. 

But any suggestion that Lorde has turned from prodigious youth to self-obsessed star is quickly deflected. We’re entering heightened emotional territory, the title warns us. And there remains plenty of the worldly wit and self-mockery that ran through Pure Heroine.

"They’ll hang us in the Louvre," she jokes in one song, adding in a conspiratorial mumble, "down the back, but who cares, it’s still the Louvre."

Already released as a single back in March, ‘Green Light’ opens the album and signals the bigger, more dramatic production.

Where Pure Heroine was characterised by Joel Little’s synth and drum-loop backings, which provided an almost-neutral backdrop for the voice, the dancefloor drums and pounding gospel-rock piano of the opening track propel Lorde’s vocals forward as she sings of the "brand new sounds in my mind".

Though a number of co-producers were involved, Lorde’s chief collaborator for Melodrama is Jack Antonoff, formerly of New York indie pop trio Fun.

Together they have created a colourful, high-contrast album. But while the tracks vary from dancefloor bangers to old-school singer-songwriter ballads, the hooks still mostly come down to Lorde’s voice.

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Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

She’s a virtuoso of quirky phrasing. Song after song hinges on her carefully chosen words and the fresh rhythmic twists she finds in them: "Blow shit up with homemade d-d-d-dynamite", "I’m a little much for e-e-na-na-na-e-e-veryone". These are the moments that really catch. 

From hip-hop and her mother’s poetry she has learned that words don’t always need a tune. "Broadcast the boom boom boom boom and make ‘em all dance to it" goes the spoken catchline in ‘The Louvre’. 

But she has undeniable melodies too, like ‘Writer In The Dark’, a big emotive piano ballad, which exercises her full range, from husky hungover growl in the verses to soaring heights in the choruses.

And then there’s ‘Liability’, in which she’s never sounded more fragile, nor given herself a sturdier tune to hang onto.

Lorde

She mixes classic singer-songwriter elements with slamming high-production pop. Yet if Joni Mitchell and Katy Perry are both influences, she doesn’t rank one above the other. In Lorde’s music, a poetic phrase and a teen-pop hook can share the same musical space.

In an April interview in The New York Times, Lorde mentioned that hit-making producer Max Martin – architect of huge hits for Perry, Taylor Swift and Britney Spears among others – had said that according to his principles of ‘melodic math’ ‘Green Light’ was ‘incorrect songwriting’. 

But, as Lorde pointed out in the article, she knows the rules. “Sixty percent of the time I follow them; 40 percent, I don’t,” she said, offering some melodic math of her own. It’s her willingness to defy the rulebook, on top of a preternatural understanding of what those rules are and how to make them sing, that makes Melodrama special.

More Melodrama:

  • Late To The Green Light
  • Lorde: Sharing the brand new sounds from her mind